Born and raised in the UAE, it may not surprise you to discover that Emirati Mansour Al Zaabi is a petroleum engineer.
What may shock you though is that what really fuels the 27-year-old is his fiery passion for rugby, one he discovered when he was welcomed into the Abu Dhabi Harlequins family four years ago.
Al Zaabi was looking for a sport to take up, with rugby peaking his interest. However, it wasn’t until he researched the sport that he realised it was even being played – and not only that, but thriving too – in his own backyard.
He has since gone from rugby novice to rugby nut, and was bestowed with the great honour of being named Quins club captain for the 2019/20 season – the first Emirati to hold such a prestigious position in UAE rugby.
“It’s a funny story,” recalls Al Zaabi, who has been a stalwart of Quins’ 3rds – the BaaBaas – since first pitching up at Zayed Sports City in 2015.
“I was just looking into sports I could practice. Rugby took my attention and I did my research, to see if this sport existed in UAE. I found Abu Dhabi Harlequins and I reached out and got welcomed to join immediately.
“There is that reputation about rugby, a lot think of people think it’s a violent game which leads to injuries, but that’s true in any other sport also. Rugby has its own uniqueness and special bonds compared to other sports.
“Before the Quins I had no background or any understanding about this sport, so being welcomed and treated as part of the family from day one made me want to give back to the club and to rugby.
“I’m going to give it a go and I hope to be part of spreading the sport of rugby in the UAE.”
It is a role Abu Dhabi-born Al Zaabi is relishing, even if he jokes that he was bullied into it.
“Peer pressure,” he says when asked what made him become club captain.
“I always wanted to give back to the club and rugby one day. I just didn’t expect that day to be this soon with only spending four years with the club.
“It is such a big privilege, it comes with a lot of responsibilities and I have big shoes to fill.”
Many expatriates are thousands of miles away from home in the Emirates, and yet in terms of numbers they heavily outweigh the locals.
The UAE’s Emirati population equates to roughly just over 10 per cent of the nation’s approximate 9.68 million residents (11.48 per cent) in 2019, according to data provided by the World Bank.
That’s an expat population of roughly 88.52 per cent. The same gargantuan gap is even more true of the rugby-playing fraternity, with the semi-pro game played at three different levels by swathes of South Africans, Brits, Europeans and more.
And yet, there is more than a smattering of local interest too. Take Al Zaabi for example, who has become entranced by the brutal yet beautiful sport.
Besides him, there is plenty of local interest and talent. The UAE Rugby Federation’s Player Pathway Programme (PPP) was launched in late 2011 while the Dubai Airports Shaheen Development Programme is the federation’s Emirati youth pathway, which focuses on developing players aged 15-19 years and primarily the sevens format of the game. The focus is on home grown indigenous talent who in time could represent the UAE national teams. There is a mandatory requirement, meanwhile, for Apollo Perelini’s national XV squads to include a percentage of local players at all levels.
Another Emirati Quins player to come to prominence in recent years is winger Adel Al Hendi, whose mother is Welsh. He has featured numerous times for the UAE sevens sides, while Hassan Al Noobi and Mohammed Hassan have both travelled with the XV’s squad and competed at the Asia Rugby Championship (ARC). The duo came to prominence at Arabian Knights before earning moves to Abu Dhabi Saracens.
Elsewhere, Fahad Ali was one of the early Emirati stars when he was named Dubai Exiles’ most improved player in the 2014/15 season. He was presented with his award by then South Africa captain Jean de Villiers.
In March this year, three of the Al Ain Amblers side that lost 37-21 to eventual champions Dubai Tigers on the final day of the second-tier UAE Conference season were Emirati – Ebrahim Doraee, Khalid Al Junaibi and Mohammed Al Marar have flourished into established members at the Garden City club in recent years.
It is a poignant move for both Al Zaabi and Quins, who will be celebrating a huge milestone during the course of the new season. They celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, having been established as the Abu Dhabi Rugby Union Football Club in 1970.
As well as being one of the oldest clubs in the UAE, they are also one of the most successful too, especially in recent seasons with the club having swept up the majority of silverware.
They are in a transitional period at the moment, although they did still manage to lift the UAE Premiership title last season. But Al Zaabi is hoping to help the club maintain their status as one of the top dogs.
“There are big responsibilities and I would like to make a positive impact and take the club to a bigger level,” said Al Zaabi, who graduated as a petroleum engineer in April.
“That is hard to achieve because the club is the most successful club in the last decade, but that’s a challenge I will take, to make us even better.”
He has other ambitions too. “I want to get a permanent home for the club, which is an issue. I would say most if not all clubs in the UAE suffer from.
“A lot of the club’s budget goes to pitch renting. Having our own home club will take the Quins to the next level.”
Jaen Botes is looking forward to more “exciting times ahead” for UAE rugby as he and the nation prepare for a return to the elite Asia Rugby Sevens Series.
The UAE have been roaming the relative international wilderness of sevens rugby in recent years, having not played in the main series since 2015. In the ensuing years they’ve foraged in the Development Sevens Series and the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy – lifting that accolade last year to climb back into the main series for 2019.
Apollo Perelini’s men are the eighth and bottom seed across three legs of the series to be played during August and September, and they face the daunting task of taking on heavyweights and top seeds Japan in Pool A of the opening appointment in South Korea at the end of next month.
The UAE also face fourth seeds Sri Lanka and fifth seeds China in Incheon from August 31-September 1. But after their triumphant return to Division I in the 15-man game’s Asia Rugby Championship earlier this year, Botes admits confidence is sky high.
“It’s been a hectic year of rugby,” admitted the ferocious Dubai Exiles No.8.
“We went away to Thailand and came back as champions of Division II which gave us all a boost of motivation to achieve more. It was a great achievement for the UAE and hopefully we can achieve more.
“There are very exciting times ahead. We’ve been training every week, we all did our testing a few weeks back which gave us a platform to work off and a benchmark where we need to be for the upcoming three-leg tour over August and September as individuals as well as a team.
“We have a tough group but it’s only reasonable to challenge ourselves early on.”
The UAE were promoted to the main series for 2019 after a dominant performance in last year’s Trophy, beating hosts Singapore 14-0 in August’s final.
They had previously swatted aside their group rivals, including big wins over Indonesia (48-0), Jordan (45-5) and Nepal (36-5), scoring 129 points and conceding just 10. They beat Thailand 26-0 in the semis before overcoming the hosts at Queenstown Stadium.
Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Korea and Chinese Taipei make up Pool B in the opening leg of the series.
“After a few weeks off a number of us received the invitation from AP to be in the sevens training squad,” added the South African, who spent part of his youth career with Welsh provincial sides Cardiff Blues and Scarlets.
“At first I was shocked as there is a lot of talent to pick from, however, I have taken on the challenge to better myself and train hard to be at the level expected from me.
“We have a great team behind us and the mood in camp is great, everyone is challenging themselves and each week the atmosphere is getting better.”
Botes is not everyone’s cup of tea back home on the domestic circuit. Warm and engaging off the field, he is a nightmare on it. A hulking and imposing physical presence, he chats non-stop and has a habit of winding up the opposition, as well as walking a tight rope with referees.
But he must be commended on his fitness regime. For a big man he has never had any problems getting across the field and, despite not possessing the figure of a traditional sevens player, has long been part of the UAE set-up in both the long and shortened format.
But he admits he has made changes this year in a bid to maintain and improve his fitness and stay part of Perelini’s sevens plans. He has teamed up with Fuel-Up by Kcal – the first meal prep company in the UAE dedicated to athletes and the seriously ambitious.
#UAERF 7's team now undergoing testing for @asiarugby #ARSS Series Tournament, all the best of luck! 🏆🇦🇪🏉— UAE Rugby Federation (@uaerugby) June 18, 2019
Thanks to @DESCDubai for hosting our testing session! #MyRugbyMoment #RugbyBuildsCharacter #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/NVXo8YhlsZ
The 6’ 4” man mountain is maybe more of a hill these days, now weighing 114kg having lost 3kg of body fat during his first cycle with Kcal and gaining 800g of muscle mass.
“With sevens, it is ideal to be far lighter than when you’re playing in 15s rugby, especially for me,” joked Botes, who is currently on his second cycle as he looks to hone his abilities in order to be in peak condition for the UAE’s gruelling schedule ahead.
“The game of sevens, from my perspective, is all about mental strength, conditioning and skill. I have been fortunate enough to have Fuel-Up (Kcal) looking after me and my nutrition in the preparation for the upcoming tour.
“Nutrition is extremely important during this stage as it helps promote my performance during training sessions, my recovery and prevent any injuries.
“It is essential to have a very strong nutrition base so that it makes it easier to push myself to a different level as we look to compete against Asia’s best.”
Botes has noticed the benefit of teaming up with Kcal and is advising fellow athletes to do the same.
“I have been in and out of Fuel-Up office the last couple of weeks dealing with the nutritionist in tracking my daily macros and helping me drop my weight to a reasonable level, and I must say they have been extremely helpful with it all,” said the former Abu Dhabi Saracens man.
“Their expertise has taught me various things about nutrition and I’m grateful to have the support.
“I would strongly recommend any athlete in the UAE to do the same as the extreme conditions we train and play in here does have a role to play on our performance and having the right nutrition base will only promote your abilities.
“I have noticed a dramatic change in my recovery and performance during my training and it is all thanks to Fuel-Up and the Kcal team.”
It may appear to be casual, amateur, community rugby, but Andy Cole revealed a painstaking scouring of the globe was undertaken in order to find Abu Dhabi Harlequins’ new director of rugby.
The club had contact with coaches in the United States, Argentina and even New Zealand before finding a permanent replacement for Mike McFarlane, who left midway through last season and was replaced as senior men’s coach by players Craig Nutt and Luke Stevenson as well as Rory Greene on a temporary basis.
Niall Lear is the man tasked with replacing McFarlane full time, with the former Connacht A, Scottish Schools and Scotland Under-18 international throwing himself into his new role just hours after landing in the UAE.
Lear took his first coaching session at Zayed Sports City on Tuesday evening, roughly 12 hours after landing in the UAE capital to start his new life with his young family.
And despite – to the casual observer – the idea that UAE rugby is just a handful of happy-go-lucky expats playing outside of work hours, Quins chairman Cole described the recruitment process as “a nightmare”.
“We’re delighted we’ve got Niall over,” said Cole.
“It’s been a nightmare trying to find someone, it really has. I’ve been interviewing people in the US, Argentina, New Zealand, all over the place.
“It wasn’t easy to find someone to fit in doing the seniors and the juniors, that’s been the challenge. You can find someone good at one or the other, but not able to do both. It’s quite a big ask when you’ve got close to 800 playing members. It’s a big challenge.
“But this guy has got a good pedigree of rugby and has worked in good sporting schools and military schools.
“He’s got that ability to work with kids and he’s got a young family too, his wife has just given birth. For them it’s a long term plan so it will be good for them too. I’m sure he’ll fit in well, he’s got a great personality.”
Previously based in Edinburgh, Lear was house master and rugby coach for the city’s internationally renowned Merchiston Castle School – current Scotland international Fraser Brown is a former pupil.
Lear spent three years there and was previously in the same role at the Queen Victoria Military School in Dunblane.
Lear’s playing achievements include representing Connacht A from 2008- 09. He attended Loughborough University and represented Scottish Schools, Scotland U18s and was part of the Scotland Sevens training squad in 2006/07.
He also represented Rosslyn Park, Glasgow Hawks as well as the Scottish Schools athletics and the Team GB U23 athletics team.
“We’re delighted he’s here,” added Cole, who admits running a club and keeping it thriving in the UAE is a massive challenge each year, especially over the summer.
“We wish him all the best and we’ll look to carry on developing rugby across all age groups – that’s the main aim. And we hope to develop coaches as well as players.
“When you’ve got all these transient people coming and going we’re having to develop new coaches all the time as well as players. It’s not easy out here in the Middle East. People at your home club are always on call but people come and go here so it’s a new challenge every year.”